By Andrew Hood
A new climb with 20km to go lived up to expectations, breaking Liège-Bastogne-Liège wide open, but Alejandro Valverde relied on tactical savvy and his fiery finish-line punch to win La Doyenne for the second time in three years Sunday.
After working into the decisive four-man move, Spain’s “Green Bullet” collaborated with Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) to fend off searing attacks from the Schleck brothers on the Saint-Nicolas climb with 5.5km to go only to relegate the Italian to bridesmaid status with his winning sprint.
Frank Schleck (CSC) settled for his second straight Liège third, with younger brother Andy slotting in for fourth, as the pair put on quite a show in the decisive final climbs in the hilly 261km march across Belgium’s Ardennes.
“My experience here helped me win today,” said Valverde, who became the first Spaniard to win in 2006. “It was very complicated when the Schlecks attacked on Saint-Nicolas, but I also knew when I had to reserve my strength and I knew when I had to attack. This victory is more joyful than my first in 2006.”
Valverde’s win came at the end of an action-packed finale that saw the peloton splinter over a new climb at La Roche aux Faucons (Falcon’s Rock) with 20km to go.
Andy Schleck (CSC), second in last year’s Giro d’Italia, proved his pedigree as cycling’s next big star when he turned up the heat, powering away from the main pack of favorites on the storied La Redoute climb with 34.5km to go. He surged past the remnants of the day’s main five-man breakaway and found company with Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), who followed his wheel over the steep climb.
The peloton was still 60 riders strong over the short Sprimont climb with 29km to go, but the new La Roche climb was steep enough and hard enough — 1.5km at 9.9 percent — to provide the fireworks race organizers were hoping for.
Spain-like heat with temperatures into the high 70s also took the energy out of some the favorites, including Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who couldn’t follow the late moves.
“It was really hard all day. When Andy attacked on La Redoute, we were already on our limits,” said the Amstel Gold champ, 30th at 1:39 back. “The new climb (at La Roche) really made a big difference. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to follow. That climb makes Liège even harder.”
Schumacher faded as Schleck powered up the stepped climb nursing a 25-second lead on the main contenders. He slowed to wait for his older brother, Frank, who surged ahead with Rebellin and Spanish national champion Joaquin Rodríguez (Caisse d’Epargne).
Valverde later bridged across when favorites Cunego and Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) couldn’t follow the pace.
“We knew the new climb was going to be decisive. I saw four riders up ahead and I was waiting for Evans and Cunego, but I saw they were sitting on their saddles and couldn’t react,” Valverde said. “That’s when I took advantage to come across. I was a little surprised, but maybe the heat hurt them. The truth is, it was a very hard climb.”
The race seemed poised to be a CSC-Caisse d’Epargne showdown, but Rodríguez surprisingly faded on the final upper false summit above La Roche to leave Valverde and Rebellin to fend off the Schleck brothers.
“It was a complicated situation. I went full-block to be able to follow (Frank) on La Roche,” said Rebellin, who won Liège as part of his Ardennes sweep in 2004. “The team rode great tactics and I was in position to win. I didn’t have the legs for a late attack and hoped for the best in the sprint.”
Evans did manage to pull clear of the main pack to chase with Christian Pfannberger (Barloworld) and Rodríguez, but they were 20 seconds back as the leading quartet flew down a sinuous 9km descent toward the Meuse valley.
Team CSC tried to exploit its numeric advantage and sent the younger Schleck on the attack on the flats heading to the base of the penultimate climb at Saint-Nicolas. The elder brother sat on Rebellin’s and Valverde’s wheel to watch his brother chase his shot.
Schleck hit the base of the Saint-Nicolas climb with a 10-second head start, but Rebellin and Valverde used their experience to slowly reel in their younger adversary, with Schleck calmly sitting on the wheel.
Just as Andy was caught, Frank swung around his right shoulder and punched the accelerator. Rebellin and Valverde were able to hang onto the wheel. With 5km to go, Schleck accelerated again in one last gasp to drop his rivals over the top.
Andy never came back at 25 seconds back, leaving the leading trio to duke it up the final climb up Ans with Evans, Rodriguez and Pfannenberg at 1:20 in arrears with more riders chasing back.
“I was riding today to help Frank, but also to try to win myself,” Andy Schleck said. “The legs felt good today, but the earlier efforts caught up with me on Saint-Nicolas. This has been a great race and we’ll be back to win it someday, maybe even both of us.”
With 2km to go, nerves were on edge. No one wanted to blow it. They hit the flame rouge with the win in the bag, but they cautiously watched each other. Rebellin was in lead position, Valverde in the middle, waiting for Schleck’s inevitable final attack, but it never came.
“Of course I wanted to win, but they were strong enough to mark my attacks,” said the elder Schleck. “After trying twice on Saint-Nicolas, I didn’t have the legs to try again on the run up to Ans. I decided to wait for the sprint, even though I knew the odds were against me. I have to be satisfied with the week, second at Amstel, third here. I will come back to win here someday.”
As the course swept left onto the final straight away, Valverde blazed past Rebellin and Schleck could only watch.
“I knew if I could make it to the sprint, I’d have my best chance against these two,” Valverde said. “This win means a lot because the spring classics weren’t even a goal this year. I came here with a lot of motivation to race because my goals come later in the season with the Tour and the Olympics.”
Inevitably, Valverde was questioned about his alleged links to Operación Puerto, but he said he’s racing with a clear conscience. Some believe Valverde is linked to the Spanish doping scandal, but he’s never been officially implicated.
“My link to Puerto only comes from the media. No judge or evidence has ever suggested that I had anything to do with it,” said Valverde. “I’m not worried about the Italian authorities. If they want to question me when the Tour goes to Italy, let them. No problem.”
Pfannberger claimed fifth to mark a great Ardennes week that included top 10s at Amstel and Flèche while Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) pipped Evans to take sixth at 40 seconds back.
Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), back to racing after missing all of the northern classics, led a 14-rider group across in ninth at 1:03 back.
Kim Kirchen, winner at Flèche on Wednesday, led the way for High Road at 12th while Ryder Hesjedal finished 51st at 4:09 back for Slipstream-Chipotle.
Some 200 riders from 25 teams enjoyed a fine spring morning in the Place Saint-Lambert in front of the Palais des Princes-Evêque in a good-sized crowd despite the early 10 a.m. start.
Riders were champing at the bit to work into an early breakaway. David Kopp (Collstrop) and Sebastien Delfosse (Landbouwkrediet) wanted to break things open for the small teams with a surge in the opening kilometer. That was quickly snuffed. Three more riders tried at 9km — Oliver Zaugg (Gerolsteiner), Julien Loubet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff) — but the peloton wasn’t going to let them go that easily.
Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner) and Tom Stubbe (FDJeux) powered away on a steep rise toward My-Ferrières at 24km, quickly countered by Brutt, Kopp and Pierre Roland (Crédit Agricole). Three others tried to bridge out, but the leading quintet collaborated well enough to establish a gap that stuck.
At 40km, the leaders led the peloton by 3:45 and widened that margin to 11:30 atop the first of 12 rated climbs dotting the hilly route at the Côte de Ny at 57.5km.
That was enough to prompt Caisse d’Epargne, High Road, Lampre and Silence-Lotto to put some fresh legs on the front of the pack. The gap stabilized to nine minutes over the day’s second climb at the Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne at 82km.
Stubbe dropped out of the lead group going into the decisive final 100km. Kopp struggled up the Cote de la Haute-Levée at 184km but dug deep to grab back onto the leaders only to fade for good.
The pack was showing signs of life and trimmed the deficit to four minutes.
La Redoute springs Schleck, Schumacher
Things got interesting going into the final six climbs.
Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) went on a solo flier over the Cote du Rossier at 196.5km and gave chase to the leading trio. The gap was under two minutes.
A trio of early attacking riders were still dangling off the front when Alexandr Kolobnev (CSC), runner-up in last year’s worlds, bolted out of the pack after coming over the Cote de la Vecquée at 209km, but was reeled in as the peloton hit La Redoute with 34.5km to go.
The gap was down to 1:20 with Gilbert still in no-man’s land at 45 seconds back. Brutt and then Fothen lost the wheel while Rolland fought on alone, with Gilbert rocking out of the saddle up the steep La Redoute climb.
Cunego was vigilant on the bottom half of La Redoute as the favorites were shoulder to shoulder across the narrow road.
Schleck countered some early tepid moves and changed the rhythm of the race.
With 29km, Bettini attacked out of the bunch to fly past the fading Alexander Efimkin and Franco Pellizotti to chase Schleck and Schumacher, but his effort was short-lived against the collective interests of Silence-Lotto and Caisse d’Epargne. He was caught just as the bunch hit the descent toward the base of the La Roche aux Faucons.
“An attack was needed at that point because no one was taking the initiative,” said Bettini, who flew in from racing the Giro di Trentino. “When I think where I was a week ago, with busted-up ribs and no form, I have to be satisfied with how I rode.”
La Roche aux Faucons
The race’s highly vaunted new climb lived up to expectations.
Schleck and Schumacher hit the base with a slender, 22-second gap to the still 60-strong peloton.
The agile Schleck distanced Schumacher on the steepest part of the climb as Rodríguez (Caisse d’Epargne) surged out of the pack with Frank Schleck in tow to catch the waiting Schleck.
The younger Schleck accelerated again when his older brother latched on with Rodriguez and Rebellin to form a quartet over the summit. Valverde bridged out while Evans, Cunego and Pfannberg were chasing at 16 seconds back and another group at another 20 seconds back a group of about 20 riders that included the likes of Bettini, Dekker and Kirchen.
From there, it was all downhill toward the Saint-Nicolas.
1. VALVERDE Alejandro, CAISSE D’EPARGNE 6:44:04
2. REBELLIN Davide, GEROLSTEINER
3. SCHLECK Frank, TEAM CSC
4. SCHLECK Andy, TEAM CSC, at 00:30
5. PFANNBERGER Christian, BARLOWORLD, at 00:40
6. DEKKER Thomas, RABOBANK, at 00:40
7. EVANS Cadel, SILENCE – LOTTO, at 00:40
8. RODRIGUEZ Joaquim, CAISSE D’EPARGNE, at 00:48
9. BETTINI Paolo, QUICK STEP, at 01:03
10. NIBALI Vincenzo, LIQUIGAS, at 01:03
11. FREIRE Oscar, RABOBANK, at 01:03
12. KIRCHEN Kim, HIGH ROAD, at 01:03
13. GESINK Robert, RABOBANK, at 01:03
14. VAUGRENARD Benoît, FRANCAISE DES JEUX, at 01:03
15. PIEPOLI Leonardo, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 01:03
16. LLOYD Matthew, SILENCE – LOTTO, at 01:03
17. KROON Karsten, TEAM CSC, at 01:03
18. NOCENTINI Rinaldo, AG2R-LA MONDIALE, at 01:03
19. DE WAELE Bert, LANDBOUWKREDIET – TÖNISSTEINER, at 01:03
20. RICCO Riccardo, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 01:03
21. SOLER HERNANDEZ Juan Mauricio, BARLOWORLD, at 01:03
22. WEGMANN Fabian, GEROLSTEINER, at 01:03
23. MAZZANTI Luca, TINKOFF CREDIT SYSTEMS, at 01:13
24. SASTRE Carlos, TEAM CSC, at 01:29
25. SORENSEN Nicki, TEAM CSC, at 01:32
26. ZAUGG Oliver, GEROLSTEINER, at 01:32
27. FERNANDEZ DE LA PUEBLA RAMOS Alberto, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 01:32
28. PETROV Evgeni, TINKOFF CREDIT SYSTEMS, at 01:32
29. PELLIZOTTI Franco, LIQUIGAS, at 01:32
30. CUNEGO Damiano, LAMPRE, at 01:39
31. EFIMKIN Vladimir, AG2R-LA MONDIALE, at 02:58
32. GADRET John, AG2R-LA MONDIALE, at 02:58
33. MIHOLJEVIC Vladimir, LIQUIGAS, at 02:58
34. PINEAU Jérôme, BOUYGUES TELECOM, at 03:10
35. ASTARLOZA Mikel, EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI, at 03:28
36. LE BOULANGER Yoann, FRANCAISE DES JEUX, at 04:02
37. MUGERLI Matej, LIQUIGAS, at 04:02
38. KNEES Christian, TEAM MILRAM, at 04:04
39. LAGUTIN Sergey, CYCLE COLLSTROP, at 04:05
40. VOECKLER Thomas, BOUYGUES TELECOM, at 04:05
41. BRANDT Christophe, SILENCE – LOTTO, at 04:07
42. OROZ Juan José, EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI, at 04:09
43. TONTI Andrea, QUICK STEP, at 04:09
44. KOLOBNEV Alexandr, TEAM CSC, at 04:09
45. DUENAS NEVADO Moises, BARLOWORLD, at 04:09
46. RENDERS Sven, TOPSPORT VLAANDEREN, at 04:09
47. LOBATO ELVIRA Ruben, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 04:09
48. DUQUE Leonardo, COFIDIS CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE, at 04:09
49. DE LA FUENTE David, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 04:09
50. SORENSEN Chris, TEAM CSC, at 04:09
51. HESJEDAL Ryder, SLIPSTREAM CHIPOTLE, at 04:09
52. MOLETTA Andrea, GEROLSTEINER, at 04:09
53. CATALDO Dario, LIQUIGAS, at 04:09
54. GERRANS Simon, CREDIT AGRICOLE, at 04:09
55. MOINARD Amaël, COFIDIS CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE, at 04:09
56. HANSEN Adam, HIGH ROAD, at 04:13
57. TANKINK Bram, RABOBANK, at 04:18
58. TIRALONGO Paolo, LAMPRE, at 06:30
59. GOMEZ MARCHANTE Jose Angel, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 06:34
60. SCHUMACHER Stefan, GEROLSTEINER, at 06:42
61. MONFORT Maxime, COFIDIS CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE, at 07:10
62. AZANZA Jorge, EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI, at 08:11
63. ROJAS Jose Joaquin, CAISSE D’EPARGNE, at 08:11
64. FACCI Mauro, QUICK STEP, at 08:11
65. PAUWELS Serge, TOPSPORT VLAANDEREN, at 08:11
66. PEREIRO SIO Oscar, CAISSE D’EPARGNE, at 08:11
67. BICHOT Freddy, AGRITUBEL, at 08:11
68. RINERO Christophe, AGRITUBEL, at 08:11
69. GALDOS ALONSO Aitor, EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI, at 08:11
70. SELVAGGI Mirko, CYCLE COLLSTROP, at 08:11
71. GOESINNEN Floris, SKIL-SHIMANO, at 08:11
72. LOUBET Julien, AG2R-LA MONDIALE, at 08:11
73. AUGUSTYN John-Lee, BARLOWORLD, at 08:11
74. PAURIOL Rémi, CREDIT AGRICOLE, at 08:11
75. VISCONTI Giovanni, QUICK STEP, at 08:11
76. BRUTT Pavel, TINKOFF CREDIT SYSTEMS, at 08:11
77. WESEMANN Steffen, CYCLE COLLSTROP, at 08:11
78. MOREAU Christophe, AGRITUBEL, at 08:11
79. ARDILA CANO Mauricio, RABOBANK, at 08:11
80. VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen, SILENCE – LOTTO, at 08:11
81. AERTS Mario, SILENCE – LOTTO, at 08:11
82. VANENDERT Jelle, FRANCAISE DES JEUX, at 08:11
83. MEDEREL Maxime, CREDIT AGRICOLE, at 08:11
84. FROOME Christopher, BARLOWORLD, at 08:11
85. ISASI Inaki, EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI, at 08:11
86. SANCHEZ Luis-Leon, CAISSE D’EPARGNE, at 08:11
87. SPILAK Simon, LAMPRE, at 08:11
88. MONCOUTIE David, COFIDIS CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE, at 08:11
89. BARREDO Carlos, QUICK STEP, at 08:11
90. MILLAR David, SLIPSTREAM CHIPOTLE, at 08:11
91. VALJAVEC Tadej, AG2R-LA MONDIALE, at 08:11
92. GILBERT Philippe, FRANCAISE DES JEUX, at 08:11
93. TSCHOPP Johann, BOUYGUES TELECOM, at 08:11
94. MENCHOV Denis, RABOBANK, at 08:11
95. LARSSON-ERIK Gustav, TEAM CSC, at 08:11
96. CUMMINGS Stephen, BARLOWORLD, at 08:11
97. ROLLAND Pierre, CREDIT AGRICOLE, at 08:17
98. VAN HECKE Preben, TOPSPORT VLAANDEREN, at 11:15
99. DEL NERO Jesus, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 11:15
100. VELITS Peter, TEAM MILRAM, at 11:15
101. JURCO Matej, TEAM MILRAM, at 11:15
102. VAN DER SCHUEREN Kenny, CYCLE COLLSTROP, at 11:15
103. CHEULA Gianpaolo, BARLOWORLD, at 11:15
104. CAPPELLE Andy, LANDBOUWKREDIET – TÖNISSTEINER, at 12:00
105. GAVAZZI Francesco, LAMPRE, at 12:00
106. JACOBS Pieter, SILENCE – LOTTO, at 12:00
107. JUFRE POU Josep, SAUNIER DUVAL – SCOTT, at 12:00
108. PEREZ Ruben, EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI, at 12:00
109. SCHOLZ Ronny, GEROLSTEINER, at 12:00
110. GRIVKO Andriy, TEAM MILRAM, at 12:00
111. ROCHE Nicholas, CREDIT AGRICOLE, at 12:00
112. MC CARTY Jonathan Patrick, SLIPSTREAM CHIPOTLE, at 12:00
113. RIGHI Daniele, LAMPRE, at 12:33
114. COENEN Johan, TOPSPORT VLAANDEREN, at 14:03
115. DUPONT Hubert, AG2R-LA MONDIALE, at 14:03
116. ROY Jérémy, FRANCAISE DES JEUX, at 14:24
117. DUYN Huub, SLIPSTREAM CHIPOTLE, at 14:24
118. MARTIN Daniel, SLIPSTREAM CHIPOTLE, at 17:11
119. BUFFAZ Mickaël, COFIDIS CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE, at 19:31
120. QUEMENEUR Perrig, BOUYGUES TELECOM, at 19:31
121. SCHEIRLINCKX Bert, LANDBOUWKREDIET – TÖNISSTEINER, at 19:31
122. HUPOND Thierry, SKIL-SHIMANO, at 19:31
123. BEPPU Fumiyuki, SKIL-SHIMANO, at 19:31
124. BRARD Florent, COFIDIS CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE, at 19:31
125. BARRY Michaël, HIGH ROAD, at 19:31
126. CARLSTRÖM Kjell, LIQUIGAS, at 19:31
127. AGNOLI Valerio, LIQUIGAS, at 19:31
128. BOASSON HAGEN Edvald, HIGH ROAD, at 19:31
129. HUGUET Yann, COFIDIS CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE, at 19:31
130. KOPP David, CYCLE COLLSTROP, at 19:31
131. NEYENS Maarten, TOPSPORT VLAANDEREN, at 19:31
132. MARCATO Marco, CYCLE COLLSTROP, at 19:31
133. CRIEL Tom, CYCLE COLLSTROP, at 19:31